Student Life at University of Georgia in the 1840s

Athens Historian Volume V (2000)

by Lester Hargrett

University of Georgia, ‘26

Reprinted with permission from The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 1, March 1924. pp. 49-59.

Late one afternoon in 1845, Henry Timrod1 alighted from the Georgia railroad cars which had brought him from Augusta to Athens. Following a group of his fellow passengers, he descended Carr’s Hill, boarded the ferry, and was soon across the Oconee River, laboriously climbing a steep, lazy street which led to the University of Georgia campus.

Athens in the 1840s was a gay, intellectual town with a population ranging from about three thousand in 18402 to over five thousand in 1850.3 Enjoying a healthful climate, and being the seat of the highest educational institution in the state, it had attracted a class of citizens for the most part educated and refined according to antebellum standards. Here lived the Cobbs, Lumpkins, Hulls, Rutherfords, and Hillyers. The social life was  “brilliant,” and a certain degree of genuine culture existed among a people who were free from the corrupting influences of commercialism, and whose energies and estates had not yet been forfeited to a pathetic principle.  Athenians were readers and music lovers. Their libraries contained well-thumbed volumes of Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Pope, and Hawthorne, and the monthly appearance of the Southern Literary Messenger was an event of enough importance to call forth a local newspaper synopsis of each number.4 White Athens had no theater in those early days, the “assembly room” of the local hotel, when occasion demanded, could easily be converted into a playhouse sufficiently satisfactory for the modest needs of an amateur dramatic or music club.5 About 1840, M. Le Baron de Fleur, pianist to the emperor of Prussia, gave a concert in the University Chapel and charged one dollar per ticket.6

Besides the University of Georgia (Franklin College), Athens had a “flourishing girls’ school called the Athens High School,” a Manual Labor  School, operated in connection with the University, a boys’ school called the Centre Hill Academy and conducted by a learned gentleman who “whipped half the men in town,” an “Athens Female Academy,”   and   the   “Grove   School   for   Girls.”7 Despite   the comparatively small population of the town, these schools appear to have been well patronized.

In addition to these educational institutions, Athens could “boast” a book store, a botanical garden to which “students of botany might come from all parts of the South and study specimens from life,” one fairly  pretentious   newspaper,   a  band  which  played  for  public celebrations and entertainments “with animated and finished style and with striking effect,” a singing master who conducted the “Society for Improvement of Sacred Music,” a dancing master, and a quite versatile gentleman  who  took  it  upon  himself  to  inform  “the  ladies  and gentlemen of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South and North Carolina and Virginia” that he would visit those  persons who wished to learn “penmanship in all its various branches,  viz: Genteel, Ornamental, Round, Italian, Sharp, Single, Flowery, Ditto Inverse, Double Ditto, Hieroglyphic and Business”.9

In many respects, however, Athens was backward. The negroes were  subject  to  unusual  oppression. They  “were  not  allowed  to assemble on porches or other public places on Sunday,” they could not own dogs, and  their nocturnal activities were governed by a nine o’clock curfew, the breach of which called forth a whipping by the town marshal.10 If one wished to live out of his master’s sight, he had to pay a tax of fifty dollars a year for the privilege of doing so.11

Drinking appears to have been the chief form of amusement. In 1843 the students of the University, reflecting perhaps the prevalent feeling on that question, refused point-blank to march in a temperance parade;12 and a temperance lecturer who visited Athens the next year complained that  the  college boys — “a gang of  rioters” — had effectually interrupted one of his lectures with sticks and rocks and general commotion. Undaunted, however, he returned several months later, and among his converts one night was “a young mechanic … quite drunk at the time … for whom the whole aisle was too narrow.”13 The streets were in a poorly kept condition, and the town-hall calaboose, which occupied a conspicuous location, was notorious for its “filth and smells malodorous.”14

The University in  the 1840s was  in  a  considerably cramped condition. The general depression of 1837 had brought the number of students  down  to  about  one  hundred,15   and  when,  in  1842,  the University lost its annual appropriation, the faculty had to be submitted to the pruning knife. Then, in order to pay the professors who were retained, the trustees of the institution were forced to parcel out portions of the college lands and offer them for public sale.16 Alonzo  Church  was  president  of  the school,   James  P.  Waddell  professor  of ancient languages, Charles F. McCay (until succeeded   in   1846   by   John   LeConte) professor of natural philosophy or physics, Henry Hull professor of mathematics (until 1846), James Jackson professor of chemistry and   geology,   Joseph   Henry   Lumpkin professor  of  law, and William B. Stevens professor of belles-lettres and rhetoric.17

Dr. Church, a man who on certain occasions would wax “as surly as a restive bull,”18  was born and educated in the North, as, indeed, were the majority of the University of Georgia presidents before the Civil War. He had been made professor of mathematics in 1819 and, after his election to the presidency of the institution in 1829, continued to give the students his personal instruction. Dr. Church “was of quick temper and absolutely fearless, but had great self-control. Well-behaved students had respect and affection for him, but the disorderly feared and avoided him more than any other member of the faculty. He was a rigid disciplinarian, prompt to correct or rebuke the slightest indication of disorder or inattention in his class room … .”19 As he became older, his rigidity increased, and in his later years he instituted an odious spy system over the students’ dormitories and required the members of his faculty  to  act  as  spies.20  The  LeContes refused to  perform their espionage duties, and their insubordination was trumped up as a good excuse  to  get  rid  of  two  men  who  were  becoming  “advanced thinkers.”21

The student body was a boisterous lot. For the most part they were the sons of wealthy planters,22 and had been sent to the “College at Athens” merely for the sake of family prestige, for before the Civil War the University  had the general reputation of being “a rich man’s school.”23 Consequently, the boy who took his school work seriously was a conspicuous exception. A crowd of boys who were mischievous enough to “rock in” a temperance lecturer were also bold enough to show their  dislike  of an unpopular professor by breaking out his windows  with   rocks,  and  personally  assaulting  him  on  several occasions.24  This  same  crowd one  night  broke into  the  room of Professor McCay, “a conscientious professor, strict disciplinarian, and a  fearless  police  officer,”  took  his  books,  bedding  and  clothing outdoors, and gleefully burned them.25 During the ten years from 1832 to 1842 (the records covering the years 1842-50 unfortunately have been  lost),  nine  students  were  expelled  from  the  University  for “idleness and neglect,”  ten for drunkenness, seven for “disorderly conduct,” nine for “fighting,” four for “stabbing and shooting,” ten for “disrespect to professors,” three for “indecency,” one for “refusing to recite,” and one for “disturbing church.”26 Contemporary accounts also report that students indulged in gambling more or less immoderately.27

The young men were guilty of many venial and amusing sins which,  despite their triviality, weighed heavily on the shoulders of those in authority. For instance, violations of the rules “that students on Sabbath afternoons must confine their walks to one mile, provided, this healthful and innocent indulgence is executed free from any violation of the laws of the college,”28  and that students should attend divine worship at least once every Sunday, were met by fines and reprimands; and  the  boys,  frequently   leaving  without  permission  to  go  to Watkinsville or Lexington to political meetings, would return and “take their punishment as became  men.”29  In true Puritan fashion — the Puritan influence was powerful in those days — the faculty would not permit students to go to occasional circuses, but the boys would pull the wool over their preceptors’ eyes by blacking their faces and sitting with the negroes to escape detection.30   About  1840 a young man “was dismissed for ‘playing at the unlawful game of cards.’ Three years later, a hungry trio of youths were remanded to the  grammar school for ‘bringing into college and preparing for eating, fowles’ … A little later, five students were reprimanded for being found in an unoccupied house ‘eating cordial, wine, fowles and cakes, with fiddling and dancing.’ One sentimental swain was dismissed for ‘fiddling out at night,’ and another was fined one dollar for ‘fluting’.”31

Looking at the courses of study mapped out for the students, one can only wonder why they did not do more “fluting” and drinking. The Freshman class had to  take Sallust, Xenophon, Livy, Herodotus, Thucydides,  Isocrates, Demosthenes, Plato, French, arithmetic, and algebra. The schedule for the Sophomores included Tacitus, Homer, Horace, Sophocles, Juvenal, Euripides, Euclid, history, logarithms, plane  trigonometry,   mensuration,  botany  and  Porter’s  Analysis. Surveying, navigation,  leveling, natural philosophy, Homer, conic sections,   spherical   geometry    and   trigonometry,   evidences   of Christianity,  application  of  algebra  to  geometry,  differential  and integral calculus, moral philosophy,  chemistry, logic, and  Cicero comprised the year’s work for the Junior class, while the Seniors, in order to get their diplomas, had to take mineralogy, chemistry, political economy,  moral  philosophy,  astronomy,   Homer,  geology,  civil engineering, and law of nations.32  Only one  modern language was taught,  and  courses  in  English  were  entirely   omitted  from  the curriculum.

The expenses of a student at the University, according to an announcement made by the Trustees in 1844, were as follows:

Board for nine months and a half  . . . . . . . . . .  $95
Tuition, Servants’ hire, Library Fee, &c.  . . . .   $50
Washing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$10
Fuel, about   . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $5 – 10
Total33   . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $140 – 165

One of the most important factors in the University was the literary society. The Demosthenian, founded in 1803 by Williams Rutherford, Augustin S. Clayton, James Jackson and other members of the first graduating class, and the Phi Kappa, founded in 1825 by Joseph Henry Lumpkin, were in a “flourishing condition” for two or three decades before the Civil War. Each had a building of its own; the meetings, which frequently lasted all day, were begun every Saturday morning “at the ringing of the bell.”34 The societies were semi-secret affairs, and “swore their members with great and inviolable oaths which might not even be thought of in the presence of another.”35 This phenomenal interest in speaking societies was due chiefly to the emphasis then placed on popular oratory. The man who had a ready wit and a silver tongue could enter politics and, despite whatever shortcomings he had, attain the highest offices. It was an extreme form of hokum-worship and it is not to be wondered at that it found its way into student activities. The students then, as now, were perfectly content to follow in the beaten tracks of thought.

In their buildings the societies had libraries, composed chiefly of books donated by friends, alumni, and honorary members. Lives of Napoleon, Washington, Frederick the Great, and other military men, were popular with  the  students. 

The novels of  Sir  Walter  Scott occupied, quite naturally, a conspicuous position, while contemporary British and American works on various subjects (particularly poetry, travel and fiction) seem to have been numerous. Each society in 1829 had fully a thousand volumes,36 and the number by 1849 had grown to three thousand each.37 Their librarians’ records are still preserved, and afford illuminating material on the intellectual tendencies of antebellum students.

Early in their career the societies instituted the custom of extending honorary membership to prominent men in all walks of life. Hundreds of letters of acceptance of honorary membership by really noted men of the day are still in existence. Among others, there are letters to the Demosthenian Society from President Martin van Buren and William Cullen Bryant.

A consuming animosity sprang up between the two rival societies. In the efforts of each to capture all the so-called “honors,” bitter fights between opposing members ensued. The childish seriousness of it all became absurd.  Treaties were drawn up and ratified, and a letter concerning one of them, the “Dead Line Treaty,” is still preserved in the University archives.

Phi Kappa Hall 13 June 1829

Demosthenian Society


On Saturday the 30th May, a letter was addressed to the Phi Kappa Soc.  By one of your members Mr. W.S. Vason … We know of no provocation sufficient to warrant such a letter and consider it to have been written to gratify the rash inclination of inconsiderate pride. But to the charges.

First.           It was an insult upon the whole body to whom it was addressed.

Secondly.   A total departure from established custom, and a total disregard for the general spirit of the treaty which is to preserve order, peace and friendship between the two societies.

Thirdly.      He charged the person who reported him [of having walked too near the Phi Kappa Hall while a meeting was  in  progress]  of  having  done  it  through  a revengeful  spirit  of  retaliation,  or  calumny,  or defamation.

With regard to these separate charges, the com.[ittee] feel bound to make a few remarks … Did he expect that our society would correspond with him individually? Did he expect that it would condescend to do so, or so far derogate from its dignity? This letter would have been totally disregarded, as a rash effusion of his excited brain, … were it not for the danger of such a precedent … The third charge against the gentleman is the most exceptional  part of his imprudence. That he did walk far within all proper limits … limits which his good sense, and common politeness must have have [sic] we have the witness of three respectable gentlemen whose moral characters are good, and whose veracity has never been doubted. … The members of the Phi Kappa Soc. repose the utmost confidence in your strict amity, their bosoms glow with the same emotion. They hope a day of discord will never arrive, when the voice of reciprocal affection shall be changed from its melody, to the harsh clamors of hate. If anything is calculated to stir up tumult, and create unholy animosity, it is such conduct as we now investigate. A beloved member may indeed err, but our hearts entwined around him may dislike to censure him. But we know your prudence, and your justice, and await in confidence your decision.

We remain gent. Your obt. Svts.

James M. Smith David S. White Robert B. Houghton38

In the face of such letters — and they were common — breadth of thought and catholicity of outlook were not to be expected. One only needs  to scan the minutes of their meetings to be struck with their narrowness. The members were frequently fined amounts ranging from twelve and a half  cents to two dollars for “sleeping in the hall,” “retiring without permission,” “laughing in the hall,” “interrupting the speaker,” and “propping feet on the chair.” The debates carried on in these halls were either echoes of national questions, or discussions of time-worn and platitudinous subjects. On February 4, 1843, “the house proceeded to the  discussion of the following question — ‘Are the intellectual capacities of the females superior to those of the males?” which, after an animated and interesting debate, was decided in the affirmative, 20 to 8.” Again, on August 2, “Mr. Wingfield …. addressed the society in a very able & eloquent manner, showing by his chaste & high-toned language the unfathomable  depths of his own mind & demonstrating with mathematical exactness  the certain rewards of untiring & indefatigable perseverance. His address was heared [sic] with interest & received with demonstrations of high approbation.” At different  times  the  members  arrived  at  the  following  profound conclusions: “that infidelity has done more injury to the world than catholicism”; “that there should not be an international law”; “that, of the two sexes, the female has exerted the more beneficial influence upon human destiny”; “that the heathens are in a salvable state”; that no foreigners should be permitted to hold any office of profit or honor in this government”; “that the discovery of the magnet has been more beneficial to the world than the invention of the press”; that Theatres should not be patronized”; “that a Democracy is not more stable than a Monarchy”; “that disunion is preferable to consolidation” (this as early as 1845!); “that danger is to be apprehended from popery”; and “that laws inflicting imprisonment for debt should not be abolished.” But the crowning achievement came when, on January 7, 1844, the Demosthenian Society, in solemn conclave, declared by a vote of thirteen to three, “that their [sic] is a God.”39

Despite the fact that a majority of the students did not rise above the  childish, and that the school was conducted on strictly Puritan ideals, it cannot be disputed that the University was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of contributors to the intellectual and cultural life of the state. Out of this strange mixture of the ridiculous and pathetic, came a score of men who were to develop into genuinely broad thinkers, and were to become leaders, not only of their own state, but of the whole South.

The photo of the portrait of Rev. Dr. Alonzo Church was taken by Dr. W. Robert  Nix,  and  is  used  with  permission of  the  University of  Georgia President’s Office.

The biography attached to the original article reads: “Mr. Hargrett is a student at the University of Georgia, and by the study which he has made of his collegiate ancestors shows so much aptitude for historical investigation that the Quarterly has pleasure  in  presenting him to its readers, seeing his contribution a good omen for the future of historical study in Georgia.” This indeed was prophetic, since over his lifetime, Lester Hargrett did extensive research in Native American customs, laws and traditions.

1           This paper was written in connection with a projected study of Henry Timrod.

2           Hull, Augustus L. Annals of Athens, Georgia, 1801 – 1901, p. 160.

3           White, George. Historical Collections of Georgia, p. 392.

4           The Southern Banner, a newspaper published in Athens, GA.

5            Hull, Annals, p. 126.

6           Ibid., p. 126.

7           Ibid. pp. 178-180.

8           The Southern Banner.

9           Hull, Annals, p. 114.

10         Ibid., p. 128.

11          Ibid., p. 176.

12         Minutes of the Demosthenian Society of 1843.

13         Scomp, H.A., King Alcohol in the Realm of King Cotton, pp. 379-80.

14         Hull, Annals, p. 127.

15         Southern Banner, May 2, 1844.

16         Hull, Augustus L. A Historical Sketch of the University of Georgia, p. 58.

17         A Catalogue of the Trustees, Officers and Alumni of the University of Georgia from 1785 to 1876, pp. 18-22.

18          Georgia Cracker, November 1921. This number contains portions of a diary kept by James Daniel Frederick when a student at the University in the 1840s.

19         Hull, University of Georgia, p. 47.

20         Ibid., p. 63; Johnston, Richard Malcolm. Autobiography.

21         LeConte, Joseph. Autobiography, p. 164.

22          Phillips, Ulrich B. Life of Robert Toombs, p. 111.

23          Wade, John D. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, A Study of the Development of

Culture in the South, p. 259.

24          Hull, Annals, p. 133.

25          Hull, University of Georgia, pp. 55-6.

26         Ibid., p. 133.

27         Georgia Cracker, November 1921.

28         Hull, Annals, pp. 105-106.

29         Ibid., p. 122-3.

30         Hull, Annals, p. 168.

31         Hull, University of Georgia, p. 132.

32         Southern Banner, May 2, 1844.

33         Southern Banner, May 2, 1844.

34         Minutes of the Demosthenian Society, 1840-1850.

35         Hull, Annals, p. 106.

36         Sherwood, Adiel. Gazetteer of the State of Georgia, 2nd ed. 1829), p. 65.

37         White, George. Statistics of the State of Georgia, p. 76.

38          Written on the margin of this letter is the following terse comment: “a damned set of rascals, vis. the committee”.

39         Minutes and Treasurer’s Records of the Demosthenian Society, 1840-1850.